The Star Wars: Battlefront series has always been known for its large-scale multiplayer battles, which makes it a strange candidate for release on Nintendo's handheld. But the latest game in the series, Elite Squadron, has indeed been released on the DS. Unfortunately, the multiplayer aspects are so limited and disappointing that the focus goes to the single-player adventure. While that campaign provides an interesting tale and a heady dose of Star Wars atmosphere, the gameplay is just too bland to be worthwhile.
Elite Squadron tells the tale of twin brothers X1 and X2, unique among the members of the Clone Army in that they were cloned from the genetic material of a Jedi. Initially part of the efforts to crush the Separatist forces during the Clone Wars, they find themselves on opposite sides of the civil war that follows in the wake of the Empire's formation. Star Wars purists may find the premise hard to swallow, because how could Jedi clones have played major roles in both the Empire and the Alliance without being mentioned in the films? But aside from this issue, the story does a decent job of spanning the entire Star Wars saga and beyond. The way it's told on the DS leaves something to be desired, employing nothing more effective than static character portraits and printed text, but the story it tells of brothers who take very different paths is nonetheless an interesting one.
Unfortunately, the gameplay is not so interesting. You assume the role of X2, and you spend most of your time playing from a slanted overhead perspective, charging through environments on your way to accomplish objectives and stopping frequently to mow down mobs of Separatist droids or stormtroopers. The combat is generally a simple matter of pressing L to lock on to an enemy, firing at him until he's dead while moving around to avoid enemy attacks, and then locking on to the next one and repeating the process. There's not much to it, and the game has a tendency to stop you in one place and throw a few waves of enemies at you before letting you move on, and then stopping you again, which gets old pretty fast.
As you progress through the campaign, you gain access to new classes, which lends the gameplay some variety. You start as the assault class, armed with a blaster rifle, a shotgun, and thermal detonators. But at any of the command posts scattered liberally throughout each level, you can switch to any of the other classes you've unlocked. The heavy is equipped with a chaingun that cuts down enemies effectively. The engineer uses an arc caster that can stun foes and support droids that fire on enemies. And the spy has quick-firing dual pistols and cluster grenades. Ultimately, you also unlock a lightsaber, as well as Force push and lightsaber throw abilities, which you can use with any class. Switching up your equipment from time to time can fend off the doldrums a bit, but in the end, enemy forces are easily defeated regardless of which weapons you use against them, generally making your choice of class seem unimportant.
Thankfully, combat on foot isn't the only thing you'll be doing. You'll sometimes find yourself at the helm of a speeder or a starfighter, and while an occasional break from the most frequent mode of play is welcome, these vehicle sequences are even simpler and less engaging than the core action. Speeder sections just have you veering left and right to avoid obstacles as you tear quickly down a straight course, occasionally blasting enemies who get in your way. Most disappointing of all is the space combat. You're limited to moving along a horizontal plane and need only line up your sights with enemy craft and fire, tapping R to perform a barrel roll any time an enemy locks on to you. It's too simple to capture any of the excitement of the space battles from the films. There are often dramatic situations surrounding these sections--you might be pursuing Boba Fett through an asteroid field or speeding down a canyon as TIE bombers make strafing runs at you--but as potentially exciting as those concepts are, the gameplay fails to make good on them.
There are also occasional boss battles, which similarly often have the feel of cinematic excitement to their concept but aren't enjoyable to play. A confrontation with General Grievous in the middle of a hectic Coruscant highway sounds thrilling, but it's actually repetitive and dull because all you do is use explosives to knock Grievous into the speeding traffic again and again, slowly whittling away his health. Frustratingly, the final boss battle, which you'll reach in roughly seven hours, is much more difficult than anything that has been thrown at you up to that point.
Ground and space combat lack the necessary depth to be involving for the single-player campaign, and they're even less satisfying as a competitive multiplayer experience. Elite Squadron supports up to four people on local multiplayer, and any spots not occupied by players are taken over by bots. The Free-for-All and Team modes are composed of three battles--one on a planet's surface, one in a capital ship, and one in space--which the host can set to occur in any order. For the surface and capital ship battles, you choose one of the four aforementioned classes each time you spawn. The capital ship battle is a chaotic close-quarters round in which the four players shoot it out for control of two R2 units, trying to capture them and escort them back to their own base for points. In the planetside battle, points are earned by occupying command posts. And the space battle is a straight-up starfighter shootout. The simplicity of the action makes it unsatisfying, and with a maximum of four players, your strategic options are severely limited when it comes to taking and defending command posts. The only other multiplayer offering is Hero mode, a sloppy deathmatch in which players select a Jedi and try to slaughter one another with their lightsabers and Force powers. In the most basic sense, Elite Squadron on the DS offers an adaptation of the multiplayer experience found in other Battlefront games, but it lacks all of the excitement.
One thing the game gets right is the Star Wars atmosphere. While the characters are blocky and lack detail, the environments you fight through are varied and filled with background action that helps create a sense of a galaxy in turmoil. Coruscant bustles with constant activity, the sands of Tattoine are frequently overshadowed by starfighters flying low overhead, and reactor cores of capital ships busily do whatever it is they do. Space battles look particularly impressive, with massive capital ships firing on each other in the distance. The music and sound effects are excellent, as well. The compositions are all familiar, but they're used to rousing effect, and all of the blaster fire, starfighter engine noises, and lightsaber swings are pure Star Wars.
As a multiplayer game, Elite Squadron on the DS is a major disappointment. Diehard Star Wars fans who don't have access to a PSP may be willing to overlook the simplicity of the action just to experience the story and the sense of atmosphere of the single-player campaign, but this game has disappointingly little to offer anyone else.